Commercial farming of octopus is taking a stride forward with the development of a model octopus farm at the Department of Fisheries' Research Division.
The Department of Fisheries has been working closely with Fremantle Octopus Pty Ltd, to rear octopus as a potentially lucrative limb of WA aquaculture. Principal Aquaculture Scientist, Dr Sagiv Kolkovski, is running a two-pronged research program into the commercial viability of exploiting Octopus tetricus through aquaculture.
O. tetricus is prized for its eating qualities and remarkable rapid growth rate, reaching up to three kilograms in its one year life cycle. In WA, nationally and internationally, octopus is an increasingly popular seafood source. This demand, combined with its rapid growth rate, makes O. tetricus an ideal candidate for aquaculture.
The focus of the research team is to look at ways of ‘ranching’ octopus (rearing the animals in captivity) to a suitable size for consumption, with the projects more long term and elusive goal being; to breed, hatch and rear O. tetricus in sufficient numbers and to a sufficient size, to make it a commercially successful aquaculture operation. By working on the ranching side of the project now, it is an effective way of fast tracking full-scale aquaculture production if Dr Kolkovski and his team can ‘crack the code’ behind successfully rearing octopus larvae on a potentially commercial scale. This is something that has never been done in the world before and will require a groundbreaking, innovative approach to the biological puzzle if it is to be successful.
Currently, Dr Kolkovski and his team are experimenting with the occy occupants of a 15-tank farm at the Department’s Western Australia Fisheries and Marine Research Laboratories.
“The work is being carried out to imitate commercial reality as closely as possible,” said Dr Kolkovski. “ We are comparing the growth rates with different feed sources and tank conditions, and the cost of food, to find out if it is viable. The aim is to grow octopus to a suitable size for sale on the market.”
But octopus larvae are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, which is why it has never been achieved on a commercial scale anywhere in the world. Part of the problem lies in the larvae’s susceptibility to bacteria in hatchery conditions. If Dr Kolkovski and his team could unlock the environmental and nutritional code required to get the occy past its larval stage, it could open up a whole new aquaculture industry with potential global appeal.
“In the first couple of months we hatched out two sets of larvae,” he said. “With the first ‘run’ they only lasted a week, but after making a few adjustments we managed to keep some of them going for 30 days. So we already know a lot more than we did when we first started, but if we are going to be able to do it on a commercial scale, it’s going to take a lot more time. It’s a very challenging thing we are trying to do here.” The next avenue is to experiment with the artificial food to find out the larvae’s specific nutritional requirements - a critical part of the equation that nobody really knows yet.
Whatever the outcome of this next phase of investigation, one thing is for sure - aquaculture of octopus in WA on a commercial scale is a lot closer to becoming a reality on account of Dr Kolkovski and his team’s efforts.
Next time you visit the NMDC, take a trip down the Scientific Trail and see if you can spot our occy. Look carefully they might be hiding!